ISIS distinguishes itself from other jihadist organizations, particularly its progenitor al-Qaeda, by positioning itself as the group that will do what other groups are unwilling or unable to do. There is a clear dialectic wherein other terror organizations will commit an a heinous act that receives widespread media coverage; ISIS will then try to divert the international spotlight to themselves by surpassing their rivals in terms of depravity or scale—especially if it is an act which al-Qaeda condemns as being unfit for mujahedeen. Examples:
Capturing and Enslaving Women
While ISIS and its precursors were known for persecuting religious minorities, forcing them to convert to Islam, pay “protection money,” or flee (upon penalty of death)—actions widely condemned as deviant or counterproductive, even in jihadist circles–they did not take slaves or justify selling people as chattel.
However, two months after ISIS delivered their edict on religious minorities, their atrocities against Christians were eclipsed by Boko Haram’s kidnapping, marrying off and selling hundreds of Nigerian schoolgirls. The act went viral, spinning into the “Bring Back our Girls” campaign in which even the White House took part. Al-Qaeda also condemned Boko Haram’s intention to auction off the girls.
Soon thereafter, ISIS captured thousands of Yazidi women—and they didn’t just declare an intention to sell them, force them into marriages, and use them as slaves but published a widely-condemned justification for these practices in their English-language magazine, Dabiq. Later they would publish a more extensive treatise detailing how to treat one’s female slaves.
In the face of this escalation, the plight of the Nigerian schoolgirls faded from public view. And astonishingly, hundreds of foreign women, including scores from Western countries, began flocking to Iraq and Syria to become willing “brides of ISIS”—acting as the primary enforcers of the groups strict ideology regarding women and their role in society.
Deliberately Targeting Children
The Pakistani Taliban (TTP) is headed up by the charismatic Mullah Fazullah, perhaps best known for orchestrating the attempted assassination of Malala Yusefzai. There was so much blowback against jihadist groups for this action that when the TTP decided to launch an attack on a Pakistani military school in retaliation for military offensives against them, despite the fact that it was a co-ed school, the militants targeted only the boys. Not one single female student was captured or harmed (although some female staff were killed). The militants announced they finished their assault after killing the boys, and then waited to turn their guns on the (male) soldiers who came to respond. And even in this case, both al-Qaeda and the Afghan Taliban were quick to condemn the intentional targeting of children.
By this time, ISIS had already well-established itself as willing to target children in their campaigns—especially those belonging to minority sects.
They had also subverted the idea of targeting children by starting training camps to cultivate the next generation of jihadists. But the group managed to take it up yet another notch in the aftermath of the Peshawar Massacre, releasing a guide to raising “jihadi babies,” and a subsequent video featuring a young boy executing two men.
When the al-Qaeda affiliated Kouachi brothers carried out their assassination campaign against the staff of Charlie Hebdo they tried to avoid killing women. They did not kill or injure anyone when they robbed a gas station for provisions—nor did they threaten, injure, kill or take hostage the owner or visitors of the print shop in which they made their final stand—instead telling them to flee because they “don’t kill civilians.” In his final interview before confronting the police, Cherif Kouachi declared that their only agenda was to gain vengeance for the magazine’s desecration of Mohammad. This is significant: terrorists always broadcast the reason for their missions (before or after)–it is an integral part of terrorism’s strategic logic.
Consider then the Kouchi brothers actions in contrast with those of ISIS-affiliated Ahmedi Coulibali:
As the international media was focused on the holed-up Kouachi brothers, Coulibali raided a kosher market, holding men, women and children hostage–ultimately murdering four Jewish civilians, triggering a violent confrontation with police in which he was killed. In his final interview, and in a video he recorded prior to embarking on his spree, Coulibali claims that the actions of he and the brothers were coordinated, and motivated by the coalition assault on the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
This is, again, in stark contrast with the Kouachi brothers, who made no mention of a larger plot against police or kosher markets, no mention of coordination with Coulibali or ISIS, no mention of the anti-ISIS campaign in Iraq or Syria—suggesting that the attacks were probably not coordinated. Instead, Coulibali opportunistically carried out his own strike to divert attention to his own cause.
While praising the success of their plot against Charlie Hebdo, al-Qaeda disavowed any connection to, or advance awareness of, the attack on the kosher market. Nonetheless, ISIS’ attempt to seize the narrative was successful. The discourse was not about how al-Qaeda’s continued ability to strike in Western capitals, nor was the focus primarily on free speech and mutual respect. Instead, as a result of Coulibali’s actions, it became just as much about ISIS and anti-Semitism in Europe. The carefully-orchestrated, focused and relatively restrained nature of the Kouachi brothers’ operation was completely overshadowed by the capricious killing spree of Coulibali—attributed to ISIS.
In fact, while the attack on Charlie Hebdo was planned years ago, before ISIS even existed in its current form–many analysts insisted that al-Qaeda carried out the attack to prove its continued relevance and avoid being eclipsed by ISIS. As though they planned the operation several years ago to compete with a group that was part of their umbrella organization at the time; as though they would not have carried out their plan targeting the cartoonists, four years in the works, were it not for ISIS’ bold maneuvers in the last six months! It’s obviously nonsense, but this is how successful ISIS has been at co-opting the narrative of the Charlie Hebdo attacks.
But in reality, not only did ISIS have nothing to do with the Charlie Hebdo attacks, but there is no evidence that the organization played any significant role in planning the attack on the kosher market either– not in training Coulibali, or otherwise providing material or logistical support for the operation. Accordingly, it is a bit misleading to say that ISIS carried out even the strike on the market; a more accurate description would be that it was a lone-wolf attack inspired by ISIS’ ideology.
And so, we can also see that the rhetoric about ISIS and al-Qaeda teaming up to carry out strikes on the West, while great for fear-mongering purposes, is somewhat ridiculous. We can sidestep the seriousness of the rift between the groups, their aims and their methods–but just looking at the facts of the Paris attacks, not only did the Kouachi brothers and al-Qaeda seem to have no awareness of the kosher market attack (although Coulibali almost certainly had foreknowledge of their plans)–but ISIS’ leadership probably didn’t play any direct role in bringing the massacre to fruition either. It’s hard to talk about an alliance between groups when there is only one party truly “present” (in this case, al-Qaeda).
One common narrative is that the differences between al-Qaeda and ISIS are largely irrelevant to those who carry out attacks–an assertion generally made without any corroborating evidence. Again, there were significant differences in the aims and methods of the Kouachi brothers v. Coulibali; and, as described above, ISIS and al-Qaeda generally operate on a radically different wavelength (by design).
Al-Qaeda is extremely selective in its targets, disciplined in its messaging, careful in its methods, and choosy about their operatives (by some analyses it’s harder to join al-Qaeda than to get into Harvard); they generally do not seek out nor take credit for “lone-wolf” style attacks.
ISIS, on the other hand, concentrates most of its operational resources on the MENA theater; propaganda is their primary emphasis abroad. In contrast to al-Qaeda, ISIS outsources external attacks to whomever is willing and able to take up the call for jihad on their own initiative and with their own resources (this saves ISIS money and effort, but also plays on Western paranoia about lone wolves).
So not only would the groups tend to cultivate different types of followers and operatives, carrying out different types of missions–but they pose importantly different counter-terrorism challenges. Policymakers and media pundits would do well to understand these distinctions. The tendency to conflate Islamic terror attacks as being all part of the same struggle has clouded U.S. policy for the last decade, with disastrous results.
Bad-Faith Hostage Negotiations & Immolation of Lt. al-Kasasbeh
With these considerations in mind, we can better understand ISIS’ immolation of Lt. al-Kasasbeh. Al-Qaeda and affiliated groups routinely take, and demand ransom for, hostages. However, they almost always negotiate in good-faith—returning the hostages promptly and unharmed if the payment is provided. Beyond considerations about honor, etc. they are highly motivated to be consistent because ransoms have become an important revenue stream for the group, and alternatively, prisoner swaps can prove an important resource for saving key operatives.
This is an underexplored aspect of ISIS’ treatment of Lt. al-Kasasbeh, namely, their bad-faith negotiations with Jordan: the group tried to have jihadist captives freed, ostensibly in exchange for Lt. al-Kasasbeh—but in all likelihood he was killed weeks before the negotiations came to a head; in fact, many of their high-profile executions may have been carried out long before the videos were released. All of this is a stunning departure from the ethics of al-Qaeda and most jihadist organizations.
Al-Kasasbeh’s manner of death marked another major departure, with al-Qaeda holding it up as “definitive proof of ISIS’ deviance.” However, willfully transgressing the norms and standards set by al-Qaeda and other jihadist groups is an important part of ISIS’ message and mission.